Unseen Amsterdam 2017 / Viewed and reviewed
Esther Teichmann: Untitled 1 from ‘heavy the sea’, 2017 – cyanotypes at Flowers Gallery, London
The animating principles of Amsterdam’s Unseen fair are that all exhibits are related to still photography, that they were made recently enough (2015-17, though I noticed 2014 sneaking in) that you are unlikely to have seen them before; that galleries can show a maximum of four different artists – and that at least 50% of those should be ’emerging talent’.
British artist Jo Dennis models a Photo Palace tattoo in front of Laura El-Tantawy‘s photographs at Seen Fifteen
Add a clean, easily navigated lay-out in a cool city and a lively subsidiary programme, and one arrives at zesty and fresh experience which attracted a young and engaged crowd. Supplementing the 53 main galleries was a photo book market; submissions by the five young artists chosen for the Ing Unseen Talent Award 2017; a curated selection of 20 collectives working in photography; and a ‘Photo Pleasure Palace’ arranged by Erik Kessels & Thomas Mailaender. That featured such attractions as jumping from a good height onto Donald Trump’s face, acquiring an impressive range of temporary photo tattoos, and hurling wooden bricks at photographs mounted on a wall (if you hit one and smashed the glass, the vacuum packed damaged goods were your prize). The city joined in with late-night gallery openings on Saturday night and the Stedelijk Museum had a timely survey of Zanele Muholi.
Eight British galleries and a dozen British artists were a significant part of the line-up in which the Dutch continental Europe predominated, but with worthwhile representation from other continents, too. There was a lot of work, as in my picks below, about our relationship with the natural world – landscape, flora, fauna, chemical processes. If there was a trend, that may have been it, with more directly political and meta-photographic approaches less evident.
Stephen Gill: Untitled, 2017 from the series ‘Night Procession’ at Christophe Guye, Zurich
British artist Stephen Gill has been living in rural Sweden since 2014, enabling him to make the ‘Night Procession’ series of infra-red forest photographs, remotely triggered by animals’ night movements. Gill adds to the environmental resonance by treating the print with liquids extracted from the vegetation surrounding the ‘trap’, then fixes the effects by photographing the result to make the final image.
WeiXin Chong: Beige Dreams, flesh skin surface. 4, 2017 – digital C-print on aluminium at A.I., London
At A.I., Singaporean WeiXin Chong cleverly linked the vanitas tradition of the floral still life with the beauty industry’s contrary pretensions to counter the ageing process. The Beige Dreams series – referencing the ideal skin colour recalled from her girlhood memory of the crayon considered ‘people-coloured’ – applies make-up (in this case YSL Touche Eclat Shade 2.5) to flowers to yield a look similar to decay.
Susan Derges: Turn 1, 2 and 3, 2017 – inkjet prints on Kozo paper at Purdy Hicks, London
The most striking works at both of the most established English galleries at Unseen featured seaweed. Susan Derges uses a tank custom-built in her studio to allow her to photograph from under and over the water with full control of its contents and lighting and their subsequent combination. For the ‘Turn’ series, seaweed evokes rocky pools, but we don’t know where we are, which way is up and which down, nor where we’ll arrive as the world turns with the tide…
Esther Teichmann: Untitled from ‘Mondschwimmen’, 2015, gelatin fibre based print at Flowers Gallery, London
London based American-German Esther Teichmann likes to bathe with seaweed in her tub, so it was unsurprising that she showed a whole wall of seaweed cyanotypes alongside this sensual use of kelp to emphasise form. Its atmosphere is echoed in Teichmann’s own short story ‘heavy the sea’, which tells of a stormy night swim from which a woman emerges ‘motionless, half submerged, eyes closed, returning slowly. Rain pours down, washing the salt away. And still it clings to her, seaweed…’.
Theo Simpson: Vanden Plas, 2017 – Layered aluminium mounted chromogenic prints bonded to 18–gauge steel sheet (British Leyland Cashmere Gold body colour / lacquer) in mild steel angle iron cases at Webber, London
Theo Simpson made a splash by winning the Outset Unseen Exhibition Fund Award and a 2018 solo show at Foam, Amsterdam with a series which reflects on the decline of the British car industry in which his father worked. This image combines a landscape scanned from a 1970’s Rover advertising campaign (which was full of futuristic optimism even as British Leyland struggled) with Simpson’s own recent image from an area still affected by the closures. The steel mounting is sprayed in a body colour used on the upmarket SD1 3500 Vanden Plas.
Maya Rochat, shown by Seen Fifteen, in performance
Peckham’s Seen Fifteen showed Egyptian Laura El-Tantawy and Swiss-German Maya Rochat, who blurs her content by chemical experiments and by printing onto surfaces pre-splattered with paint. After the fair closed on Friday, she extended her approach into a performance, providing the backdrop to a crowded outdoor disco by squirting paint onto an overhead projector. The old fashioned means produced a mutating psychedelic backdrop evoking the OHP’s prime era.
Nathaniel Mellors: Venus of Truson, 2014 at Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam
Carrying on with the chemical aspect of natural transformation, Nathaniel Mellors, best known for the extravagant visual and narrative absurdity of his films, also has a long-running series of photograms. He sees them as cave paintings of sorts, the cave being the darkroom in which archetypal objects are captured, only for the physical result to be folded, burned and unfolded, so that unpredictable effects take over. In this case the primordial nude of a Venus of Willendorf is melted towards abstraction.
Sybren Renema: stills from the video Discovery, 2017 at Dürst Britt & Mayhew,The Hague
The Hague’s Dürst Britt & Mayhew showed a project by the Glasgow-based Dutch artist Sybren Renema which engaged with the seminal chapter in British history: video and photographic presentation documented the ascent and descent of a small fragment of Captain Scott’s polar ship ‘Discovery’ (now in Dundee) as it rose 32 kilometres before falling to ground in Carlisle. Is space the new South Pole? Was this relic giving the finger to escapism?
Pirate photo of Juno Calypso‘s new series at T.J. Boulting, London
Juno Calypso is only partway through the follow-up series to her well-received solo stint in a love hotel, The Honeymoon Suite, 2016. Indeed, no official images are available of the new project and I may be in trouble with gallery owner Hannah Watson for stealing this preview from her booth. This new series is set in an eccentrically palatial underground bunker, and again finds the photographer alone in a bizarre setting, with only her make-up, wig and reflections for company.
Polly Tootal: #43389, 2014, from the ‘Unknown Places’ series at Galerie Intervalle, Paris
Polly Tootal must spend a lot of time looking for the uncanny aspects of what we might pass my without noticing, which she then captures unpeopled and pretty straight with a large format camera. Typically, her long-running ‘Unknown Places’ series combines two liminal zones: those between functional places meet that between night and day. The atmosphere emerges as faintly repressive, even as the rigorous compositions find beauty in the anonymous. In this London view, a simple change of bricks charges geometry with narrative possibilities.
Laurence Aëgerter: from the series Photographic Treatments, 2016 at Caroline O’Breen, Amsterdam
It seems only fair to include one all-foreign presentation. One of the most interesting – French artist, Dutch gallery – was the pairs of black and white portrait layout images – some her own, many from stock – developed by French photographer Laurence Aëgerter as a therapeutic device for dementia. She believes that pairing images designed to provoke recognition of similarities is a powerful stimulus to brain activity and provides the basis for improved social interaction. So far as I know, my own dementia remains incipient, but I enjoyed the game, nonetheless.
What does that sample – 11 artists from 164 – tell us about photography now? They are probably fairly representative of the fair as a whole, which showed that artists continue to find fresh and imaginative ways to engage with established genres – landscape, portrait, still life, nude, everyday life, animals – as well as the less traditional abstraction and meta-photography. The most immediate novelty may be in how the image is made (Gill, Chong, Derges, Rochat, Mellors, Simpson, Renema) or in how the subject is treated (Teichmann, Calypso, Tootal, Aëgerter), but typically both factors are in play, and material means of production is central: perhaps the Internet will eventually swallow photography, but it isn’t happening yet.
Unseen Amsterdam 2017 was held 22-24 September, 2017.
Reviewed for Photomonitor by Paul Carey-Kent.